NYC 86′ Hi Cube Project

One of the things that we don’t have on the WRMRC layout is auto-parts traffic.  Hi-cubes are ubiquitous in southern Ontario, where all of the assembly plants in the province are located.  The only commodities moved for the auto industry in the north of Ontario are the finished product going to market, and perhaps the raw materials going to the stamping plants (steel from the Sault?).

I was born in the ’60s (man), and my earliest memories of trains are from the ’70s (far-out).  Starting in the early 70s, my father took me anywhere within a couple hours of home to watch trains.  Rail traffic around these parts was dominated by the steel and auto industries. As a result, hi-cubes play the leading role in my nostalgia for railroading in the ’70s.

This past summer I purchased a two-pack of Walthers Pullman-Standard 86′ hi-cubes in PRR livery, for no reason other than the vivid memory they evoked the instant I saw them.  If you consider that nearly every model railroad product released in the past 15 to 20 years is new to me, you might understand my excitement over the quality of these models.  They’re already outshined by newer products by ExactRail, for instance, but they’re very nice models of the Pullman-Standard car, with no mods required (from what I’ve seen) to be accurate.

The purchase of these Walthers cars inspired me to have another look at the old Athearn blue-box hi-cube models, apparently produced some time in the Mesolithic period.  Ten bucks got me one in NYC and one in PC factory paint.  I figured this was a small price to pay in order to check out the potential of these models.

There were only three major builders of hi-cubes in the ’70s, those being Thrall, Greenville, and Pullman-Standard.  What I like about the Athearn car is that it augments the Walthers model and allows for a small fleet of hi-cubes models representing a variety of car builders.

Shortly after embarking on this mad quest, Jurgen Kleylein pointed out an article in the January 1994 issue of Railmodel Journal that served to jump-start my research.  There are two relevant articles in that issue that were of use to me.  The first, by D. Scott Chatfield, gives an overview of how 86′ hi-cubes are deployed by railways to serve the auto industry, and it assess the merits of Athearn’s 4- and 8-door HO models (also referred to as quad-door and dual-quad cars, respectively).  The second article, by Robert Schleicher, describes his method for body-mounting the couplers on the Athearn car.

From Chatfield’s article, I went to the NYC Color Guide to find photos and more information about the NYC car I was going to build.  Of course, the benefit of building models in this age is abundance of online photos to use for reference.  From those sources, I examined merits of the Athearn 4-door (quad-door) 86′ hi-cube, and came up with a quick summary of what can be done with a model that, as it turns out, is a mishmash of features from two different builders.

1.  Early Thrall 4-door cars

As Chatfield points out, the Athearn model of the four-door car is a good starting point for an early Thrall hi-cube.  The only major change required is the removal and replacement of the bottom sill.  The sill on the Thrall car extends all the way to the stirrups on both ends.  Otherwise, it appears that the Athearn model closely matches Thrall cars built before 1967.  They’ve captured the single welds on the side panels, which are appropriately sized to match the prototype.  The indents in the sides, at either end of the car, are reproduced with fidelity.  Building a model of one of these based on the Athearn car could be a quick win.

2.  Late Thrall 4-door cars

To correctly model this car with the Athearn model, the welded side seams would have to somehow be changed to represent the double row of welds on the prototype.  An indent on either side of the doors would have to be built into the car’s sides, and the same change to the bottom sill noted in my description of the early Thrall car would also be necessary.  These changes make the late Thrall cars a more involved project, if one bases it upon the Athearn model.  A more workable compromise might be to do all modifications but the double row of welds along the side panels.

3. Greenville 4-door cars

In his 1994 article in Railmodel Journal, Chatfield calls the Athearn model “a nice copy of the Greenville car, except it lacks rivets.”  I agree with him to the extent that of all the prototypes, this model is closest to a Greenville car.  Today’s models have rendered Chatfield’s assessment of the Athearn model out-of-date.  The Athearn model has errors that I would find unacceptable today, but some changes can bring it closer to the prototype.  The beams at the top and bottom of the indents by the side ladders and grab irons are too pronounced.  Furthermore, all of the Greenville cars were riveted, and the Athearn model depicts a car with welded sides.  The welds could be smoothed out and replaced with rivet decals, if one is willing to sacrifice the factory paint, which is not always a great loss as the paint on some RTR Athearn models is gruesome.

That outlines the basic changes required to bring the model’s major features in line with the various prototypes.  In my next post, I’ll outline my first attempt at updating an Athearn model of a 4-door hi-cube.



Chatfield, D. Scott. “Athearn HO Scale and Arnold N Scale 86-Foot Box Cars.” Railmodel Journal. January 1994: 32-39. Print.

Schleicher, Robert. “Derail-Proofing Athearn 86-Foot Box Cars.” Railmodel Journal. January 1994: 44-45. Print.

Sweetland, David R., Yanosey, Robert J. NYC Color Guide to Freight and Passenger      Equipment, Edison NJ.: Morning Sun Books, 1994. Print.

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